A year on from the enigmatic and sonically diverse tour de force that was Tales from the Silent Ocean, Steve Hughes’ debut solo release, the imaginative album Once We Were (Part One) has been released by the former drummer with the prog powerhouses Big Big Train and The Enid. This ambitious album has a theme described thus by Hughes himself:
“This album examines the relationship and tragedy of two star-crossed lovers as they flip through different time lines and how their lives are effected by the decisions of miss-guided political leaders and romantic circumstance… war, love, loss heartbreak and death.”
Hughes launches straight into epic prog rock territory with the massive piece The Summer Soldier, spanning more than 33-minutes. This opens with the now Hughes trademark cascading of pianos, keyboards and a percussive wall of sound. The scene of war, chaos and love is certainly set as Hughes sings:
“Another life in a different timeline, Her Smile and Face I cannot forget,
Is this a dream of another lifetime, I don’t have the answer yet…”
Hughes interweaves a variety of styles and sounds, ranging from sweeping progressive rock, jazz inflected fusion and a liberal sprinkling of sounds emanating from ’80s bands such as Tears for Fears. Hughes has clearly diversified from his drumming/percussion reputation and adeptly lays out an almost bewildering series of musical sections and styles including sinuous synth lines, jazzy pianos and rock out sections with J.C. Strand and Keith Winter alongside Hughes himself on guitars. They even engage in a fascinating and appropriately at times discordant ‘guitar battle’. How he’ll ever play this stuff live is a mystery! It’s symphonic sweep at times has echoes of the classically infused pieces Hughes would have played with The Enid in the ’90s. The album’s theme is also wonderfully illustrated by the striking, beautiful and sometimes chilling artwork of Jim Trainer, another connection to Steve’s days with Big Big Train, for whom Trainer also produced some impressive artwork.
Unlike his previous album in which his old Big Big Train band mate Sean Filkins handled and arranged much of the vocals, Hughes sings the great majority of this album. Hughes says of this change in vocal focus:
“I suppose I feel a lot more confident as a singer now and, dare I say, a ‘multi instrumentalist’ and I just found It easier and a lot less hassle to do the vocals parts myself as I knew what I wanted it to sound like…’
It has to be said that in this epic opening track, in this reviewer’s view, Hughes struggles a little with the more rock accented parts, although many vocalists would have found it difficult making their mark amidst the sonic barrage that crashes and rolls like thunder across much of this track. It is hardly surprising to hear from Hughes that the working title of The Summer Soldier was ‘Armageddon Conspiracies’ with an emphasis on political intrigue. This opening track may divide opinion – some will glory in the musical avalanche of complexity and the cascade of styles that wash over you on this musical journey, but others will find it to be very ambitious and possibly over extended to such an extent that it feels a little indigestible. I will admit to feeling torn in two by this track – impressed by the ambition but feeling like I may have eaten too much by the end!
If the listener has survived that run of the sonic gauntlet they move into quite a different world indeed, with much shorter songs and a much less prog rock inflected musical palette. This change in direction and tone is much more suited to Hughes lighter singing style, particularly on the diaphanous and sparkling A New Light, a simple palate cleanser after the possibly overwhelming experience of The Summer Soldier.
Hughes moves in to pure ’80s inflected pop/rock, with clear echoes of the great Tears for Fears, on a very personal song called For Jay, written about the son of a former girlfriend with whom he became close. Hughes explains:
“We developed a close bond, but when his mother and me broke up, I never saw him again, and it was like losing a son in a way. So it’s a song dedicated to him and about wondering if he remembers me now that he’s all grown up. He was a very gifted young man and as I discovered recently he’s doing very well as a model and actor… the song also has some breaking-up references to do with me and his mum… plus a little fiction added for spice.”
This personal angle gives the song more emotional impact, and is skilfully presented with ’80s pop rhythms and harmony vocals before an elegiac, meandering conclusion fades out over a reggae beat.
The strongest part of the album, the lyrics for Kettering Road provide another very personal reflection. This song is a classic case that sometimes ‘less is more’ as this is a simpler song infused with memories and a memorable and catchy melody as Hughes remembers “I Loved those Saturday afternoons”.
This lovely song soon takes an unexpected turn as Hughes sadly intones “Once we Were in Love…” with vocoder effects, almost as if the song has gone through the back of the Narnian wardrobe or is looking back on previous days. Hughes honestly explains the background to the song:
“I lived in Northampton in the mid ’90s. There was a stage where I was drinking a lot and felt pretty isolated from the world. I’d find solace by taking a stroll up this one particular road, usually on a Saturday. It became a bit of a ritual really. I liked the old feel of the road with its run-down buildings and old pubs, shops and houses, etc. Sometimes I’d stagger along drunk then pause to see my reflection in a shop window for instance. I felt quite lost really. They were pretty dark days. I’m pleased to say I came out of being ‘out of it’…”
Such honesty and emotion gives this song such resonance and in it’s relative simplicity there is a depth in which we learn more about the artist in dark times. This is a song in which Hughes has resisted the temptation to throw his proverbial multi-instrumental sink at it, and in my view it has more impact on the listener, allowing space for the music to breathe and the feeling to grow.
Breathy vocals with a piano and percussion led sonic assault returns for Was I Wrong? featuring a distinctive guitar solo from Dec Burke (ex-Frost* / Audioplastik) in a fine rolling rock/pop song with quirky elements. Bitter sweet love song That Could’ve Been Us starts out with a distinctive ’80s drum beat which left this reviewer racking his brains to put his finger on where in younger days he had heard a very similar rhythm, but not quite managing, reminiscent of the feeling of vaguely held memories in these songs. Hughes’ light voice is well suited to the atmosphere here and he uses vocal harmonies with great tenderness, particularly in this delightfully lyrical section:
“Windy moors on summer days,people go their separate ways
Here comes Sadness and heavy shadows, Summer’s Fading, clouds are forming,
See the farmers burn their fires and watch the Sun go down.”
Steve’s sister Angie contributes some darker lyrics and dream-like vocals to the penultimate and rather brief Second Chances, this idiosyncratic and unpredictable album ending with the Japanese entitled Saigo Ni Moichido which means ‘One Last Time’ which Hughes explains “is about wishing to go back in time and experience love again after losing someone very dear and questioning everything and wondering what life’s all about and why we are all here”. The conclusion contrasts a mournful violin from Maciej Zolnowski and soaring guitar lines, echoing the dichotomy of the lines “You Know I couldn’t stop believing, Even though our Lives were Tragic”.
When I reviewed Steve Hughes last album I found it to be a promising and surprising debut album with some impressive songs but I felt it was inconsistent. I have to say that I have similar feelings about this album, which feels like two parts. As I’ve have hinted, the epic opening song will split opinions – no-one can fault Hughes for his imagination and ambition, but one wonders whether he over stretches himself at times… but some will love those same qualities! Conversely, I feeel that Hughes is more adept with the more ’80s style and much more personally inflected songs (which include tender and touching moments), but those of more ‘Prog’ leanings may find these songs to be rather light for their appetite. One thing is sure, Steve Hughes continues to test himself, and equally fascinate and bewilder others with a mixture of ambitious music and some surprisingly catchy moments.
01. The Summer Soldier (33:01)
02. A New Light (3:06)
03. For Jay (9:12)
04. Kettering Road (8:04)
05. Propaganda: Part One (2:12)
06. Was I Wrong? (4:34)
07. That Could’ve Been Us (8:13)
08. Second Chances (2:44)
09. Saigo Ni Moichido (5:55)
Total Time – 77:01
Steve Hughes – Drums, Percussion, Bass, Guitar Programming, Harmonica, Programming, Synths, Lead vocals
JC Strand – Electric Guitars (track 1)
Keith Winter – Electric & Rhythm Guitars (tracks 1,2 & 3)
Dec Burke – Guitar Solo (track 6), Keyboards, Vocal
Maciej Zolnowski – Violin (tracks 7 & 9)
Alex Tsentides – Bass (track 1)
Richie Phillips – Sax
Angie Hughes, Katja Piel – Backing Vocals
Record Label: Progressive Promotion Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Year of Release: 2016